Architecture students had it tough even before covid struck. Eleanor Jolliffe has some advice for first-years

Eleanor Jolliffe

Being a fresher is always hard and pressured and tricky to navigate. This year it sounds appalling. For what it is worth, here is my advice to those starting their architectural adventures this year.

There will be a temptation while locked in your room and socially distanced from all your classmates to believe there is something in that idea of the tortured artist whose credibility is linked to their suffering and loneliness. Reject this: it’s bullshit. Despite the myths that swirl around architectural studio units, architecture is collaborative and great architecture cannot be designed in a vacuum. Your work will not be better if you cut yourself off from everyone around you, hoard all your ideas like pirates’ treasure and make a point of never finishing work before 3am. These are the years when you lay your groundwork so don’t build your career on foundations this illogical.

The project I am engaged in at the moment has between 20 and 27 architectural brains working on it daily, along with well over a dozen mechanical engineers, a similar number of structural engineers and an accompanying chorus of project managers, fire consultants, acousticians, quantity surveyors, interior designers, BIM consultants and advising contractors. I spend the majority of my time coordinating information and communicating between teams and disciplines. If I stockpiled information and refused to communicate I would have lost my job. Being an architect in glorious isolation is impracticable and potentially dangerous, whatever the 18-year-old you just met in a black turtleneck has authoritatively told you.

Distrust anyone who gives the impression of knowing “all the things”. No one knows all the things not even the architect you think you’ve heard of who just gave you a tutorial. Ask them about the finer details of Part L of the Building Regulations, exactly how unitised facades are detailed, or the impact of the 2018 amendment to regulation 7 on high-rise residential design – and you will realise they are also human. Modern construction and the regulations surrounding it are too complex and too quickly changing for anyone to know everything. However, the people at university – both staff and students – will know different things to you, so ask stupid questions, share your knowledge and increase the amount of “all the things” that you do know.

Make friends with people on other courses. Architects are great, but we’re a weird bunch. Have diversity in your friendships so when everyone is going mad about a deadline you can have coffee with a friend who studies history and talk about what you’re both watching on Netflix. This will also make you a better architect. You will spend your life working with and for people who aren’t architects and bubbling yourself in the “correct” aesthetic opinions and archispeak will be disastrous.

By all means design something that looks a bit like a gothic insect. But work out where the fire exit is

You are not a better architect if you reject the constraints of Building Regulations and business sense. This is daft, no matter what anyone with mad skills in Photoshop or with a Rotring pen or particularly circular glasses tells you. By all means design something that looks a bit like a gothic insect but work out where the fire exit is and how the person in a wheelchair, or parent with a buggy, accesses it and how it can be built. Does it defy gravity? Is it going to use enough energy to power Liverpool? Perhaps tweak the design. The true skill of great architects is to combine the regulations and real-world constraints with that hint of magic. This will take time. Your first design will look rubbish. This is normal, don’t panic. Eat a vegetable, have a cup of tea, get a good night’s sleep and try again in the morning.

You don’t have to wear black, or round glasses. If you want to, brilliant – but I am typing this wearing teddy bear slippers and I am still an architect. Some days I wear black and circular glasses and other days I wear floral prints and – gasp – colour but I still have “artistic integrity”. Architecture needs more diversity: of race, of gender, of experience, of opinion. Don’t feel pressured to conform. Your experience and opinions are as valid as anyone else’s.

I’m sorry this is not the start you should have. You should be able to have a fresher’s experience free of the threat of global plague. You should be able to deal with the difficulties of finding friends and working out how to cook for yourself without the risk of a deadly disease. You should be able to share ideas, experience new spaces, visit great buildings, fall asleep in lectures and make mistakes without those mistakes being potentially fatal. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others and be kind to the university staff. I have friends who teach and they’re nervous about what teaching in person will mean for them and their families. For their sake try and stick to social distancing and don’t take stupid risks. If nothing else this will make you resilient (which is handy in this profession). But it really is all a bit rubbish. Don’t make it harder on yourself than you need to.